Dolphins have long had a mythical status as special healers – or even originating from Atlantis, that mythical seat of power and nobility. But that idea got an unexpected boon when Dr Betsy Smith, an educational anthropologist, witnessed an improvement in the mental state of her intellectually disabled brother after he waded into the water with two young dolphins in 1971.
Neuropsychologist David Nathanson was intrigued by the story – intrigued enough to investigate whether dolphins could help disabled children to develop, both physically and mentally.
At a facility in Key Largo, Florida, he began some basic research, testing whether dolphins could help children with Down syndrome process and retain verbal information.
The dolphins were used to provide the stimuli and reinforce behavior: when a child’s response was correct, he was allowed to feed a dolphin. Nathanson discovered that the children learned four times faster with dolphins than they did in their more conventional educational settings, and retained 15 per cent more information as well.
In fact dolphin interactions elicited up to 19 times more correct speech in these children than did the usual classroom setting.
Between 1988 and 1997, Nathanson went on to treat 700 children with 35 different diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, autism, Angelman’s syndrome, and brain and spinal cord injuries.
Just two weeks of dolphin-assisted therapy—or DAT, as it is now referred to— outperformed six months of conventional speech and physical therapy—and at less cost. And a 15-point questionnaire filled in by the parents of the treated children concluded that the skills learned with DAT were maintained or even improved upon in 50 per cent of the cases a year after the treatment had ended.
Since Nathanson’s ground-breaking research, a variety of therapists have attempted to use dolphins to to treat anorexia nervosa and chronic depression, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, dyslexia and even cancer. One research facility in the Ukraine using dolphins to assist in the therapy of 1500 patients reported a 60 per cent improvement in childhood phobias, and a 30 per cent improvement in patients with infantile cerebral palsy.
Nathanson’s initial premise was that it was simply the pleasurable experience of interacting with an animal in water that appeared to increase the children’s attention span. But David Cole, a computer scientist at Fort Myers, Florida, fascinated by the possibility that dolphins might have a profound physiological effect on humans, developed a neuromapping electroencephalography (EEG) instrument to enable his AquaThought Foundation to study the neurological effects that close contact with dolphins might have on the human brain.
The participant’s dominant brainwave frequency slowed significantly after interaction with dolphins—from a beta frequency to something resembling an alpha state, the brainwave frequency of light meditation or dreaming. The researchers also found that the brain hemispheres synchronize, so that the brainwaves emitted from both the left and right hemispheres are in phase (peaking and troughing at the same time) and of similar frequency (speed).
Studies into psychoneuroimmunology have demonstrated that alpha states strengthen the immune system—one possible reason why cancer patients swimming with dolphins report successful treatment outcomes. Other research shows that an increased number of alpha and theta waves can enhance learning.
The Florida Back Institute, studying the endocrinological effect of human–dolphin contact, found that the production and uptake of the brain’s neurotransmitters are strengthened by dolphin contact.
AquaThought has postulated that a dolphin’s acoustic emissions, or sound waves, cause chemical changes at the boundaries of cells in living tissue—what Cole terms ‘sonochemistry’—the interaction of sound with matter through the process of cavitation. “Sonochemistry . . . may explain both the chemical and electrical changes that have been observed in the brain,” says Cole. The cavitation is caused by microscopic bubbles 100 microns in diameter, formed as a result of the intense sound waves, which implode in less than a microsecond.
Thus far, we know that cavitation helps hormones to pass through cell membranes more efficiently. Furthermore, leukemia research shows that cavitation can help to disintegrate the membranes of cancerous cells, which may be another reason for the reported positive DAT effects on cancer patients.
It’s also thought to stimulate the production of immune system T cells and to release endorphins, hormones involved in coping with stress and modulating the perception of pain.
Another possibility suggested by dolphin researchers is a process called ‘resonant entrainment’, a situation that is analogous to when one tuning fork hits a pitch at which other tuning forks subsequently vibrate. We know that bottlenose dolphins produce low-frequency electromagnetic and scalar waves (or standing) waves.
For the Hello Dolphin Project in Florida, the researchers constructed special wide-band sensor and recording equipment to record all signals emanating from dolphins. They then also recorded the brainwave frequencies of the children participating in the study.
When the dolphins were present, they recorded an electrical, magnetic and acoustical extremely-low-frequency signal of about 16 Hz in nearly three-quarters of all the trials.
When the researchers then examined the brainwave recordings of the participants, they found profound brainwave shifts to a predominant frequency near 16 Hz after the interactions with the dolphins.
From the material they gathered, the researchers concluded that dolphins simultaneously emit acoustical, electrical and magnetic fields, and that dolphins sense electrical fields from humans and attempt to communicate using the same frequencies (in the human brainwave band of 6–30 Hz).
We feel better around dolphins because they act as our tuning fork – and help us back to resonating at optimum frequency.
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